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The Little Dog Laughed
Repertory Theater of St. Louis

Also see Richard's review of Oleanna

The last show of the Repertory Theater of St. Louis's "Off-Ramp" series for 2008 is Douglas Carter Beane's excruciatingly funny The Little Dog Laughed, a full frontal assault on the human tendency to give up things like honor and integrity in exchange for things like money and fame. The play has its moments of tenderness—or of the illusion of tenderness, depending on how one reads its two male characters—but is ultimately unforgiving; it is exactly the measure of human nature, as Beane apparently sees it, that the play's ultimate (and absurdly logical) betrayals seem like business as usual.    

The play begins and ends with, and is held together by, the machinations of aspiring Hollywood uber-agent Diane, who has her teeth fastened on the prospect of fame and riches like a dog with a bone. Circumstances are tugging at the other end of the bone, though; her prize client has "a slight reoccurring case of homosexuality," and the even gayer writer whose play she wants to film is insisting on preserving the artistic integrity of his work. She tears into her problems with complete disregard for anything, honor included, and anyone whose needs might be in conflict with hers.

Diane manipulates people not only for personal gain but also, and importantly, because she enjoys knowing that she can. She is as open-faced a villain as Richard III, but with an even greater gift for archly hilarious asides; as interpreted (or better yet, inhabited) by the aggressively brilliant Erika Rolfsrud, she smiles and murders (figuratively) while she smiles, and winds up presiding over something like a wedding scene in which everybody's integrity is trashed, but everybody seems to be OK with that, including—and this is Beane's real genius—the audience.

Diane's client Mitchell is a nice enough guy, for an actor who wants to be a star. When we first meet him he is just arrogant and just drunken enough to make his apparent cluelessness about his sexuality convincing, though Diane certainly has him pegged. He and Alex, a hustler with an improbable (but again, convincing) streak of compassion, pursue an improbable (but convincing) courtship, despite the relationship that already exists, with all-too-probable complications, between Alex and Ellen, a twenty-something refugee from Westchester who apparently finds living in squalor in the slums of New York City an enriching experience. And yes, she is quite convincing. And, like the men, bright and funny.

Veteran TV actor Chad Allen, who has played the role before, wears Mitchell like a second skin; it is impossible to imagine how the part could be done differently. Mark Fisher, as Alex, is a perfect partner in the ritual dance of their courtship.  Lindsey Wochley brings the unlikely Ellen to delightful, if edgy, life. Under the sure hand of director Rob Ruggerio, whose work in the Off-Ramp series has won him a couple of Kevin Kline "Best Director" awards, the cast works beautifully as an ensemble; the movement, even in potentially disastrous moments, is deft and the pacing is energetic. It would be no surprise to see him win again this year.

David Zyla's costumes, especially for Diane, and even more especially the flamboyant gown in which Diane makes her first appearance, are both thoughtful and attractive, as is Adrian W. Jones' slick, contemporary set.

The Little Dog Laughed is not going to be everybody's cup of tea. The language, sparkling with repartee, is also thick with profanity, and there are a couple of envelope-pushing nude scenes. There are some inconsistencies as well. For example, the fact that Diane knows more about Mitchell's proclivities than he admits that he does suggests that there may be a certain theatricality even in the most intimate and apparently sincere passages of his relationship with Alex. Ellen's dilemma is a touch too convenient, and Alex's response to her seems out of synch with his sympathy for Mitchell.

But these things pale in comparison to the blustery verbal energy of Beane's script, the brilliance of his humor, and the deadly accuracy of his insight. The audience may walk out of this play having faced some truths about human nature, their own included, that are not altogether pleasant, but they've had a heck of a good time getting to that point.

The Little Dog Laughed will run through November 30 at the Grandel Theater in Grand Center as part of the Off-Ramp series at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis; ticket information is available at 314-968-4925 or online at www.repstl.org.


-- Robert Boyd

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